New Study Makes Recommendations to Address Clinician Burnout

A paper released last week by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association has raised the alarm on the pervasive problem of physician burnout.

The paper, available here, includes directives aimed toward curbing the prevalence of burnout among physicians and other care providers, including the appointment of an executive-level chief wellness officer at every major healthcare organization, proactive mental health treatment and support for caregivers experiencing burnout, and improvements to the efficiency of electronic health records.

In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78% of physicians surveyed said they experience some degree of professional burnout – a syndrome involving one or more of the symptoms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession.

“The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician wellbeing is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients,” said Alain A. Chaoui, M.D., a practicing family physician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.  “We need our healthcare institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level, and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.”

“Massachusetts hospitals place a high and unwavering priority on the safety and wellbeing of patients and everyone who works in or visits their facilities,” said Steven Defossez, M.D., MHA’s V.P. of clinical integration, a practicing radiologist, and a co-author on the new report. “In particular, we recognize the need to further empower healthcare providers and support their emotional, physical, social and intellectual health. This report and its recommendations offer an important advance toward ensuring that physicians are able to bring their best selves to their lifesaving work. We see it as a component of our broader efforts to improve the healthcare workplace for every single employee, from nurses and direct care workers to lab technicians and administrative personnel.”

By 2025, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that there will be a nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven away from medicine or out of practice because of the effects of burnout.  Further complicating matters is the cost an employer must incur to recruit and replace a physician, estimated at between $500,000 and $1 million.

“The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” said Ashish K. Jha, M.D., director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and K.T. Li professor of global health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines – our physicians – are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.”

In addition to Chaoui, Defossez, and Jha, the paper’s authors are Andrew R. Iliff, J.D., program manager, Harvard Global Health Institute; Maryanne C. Bombaugh, M.D., president-elect, Massachusetts Medical Society; and Yael R. Miller, MBA, director of practice solutions and medical economics, Massachusetts Medical Society.